A group representing ATV enthusiasts is rallying all recreational users of public lands to fight a proposal by Manitoba Conservation to restrict motorized vehicles in a popular wildlife management area of eastern Manitoba.
ATV Manitoba says all recreational users should be concerned about a proposal in the Mars Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA) north of Beausejour to limit how trails can be used, saying it could ultimately lead to closing down public access to Crown lands.
A group calling itself the Manitoba Public Land Access Group sent letters last week to editors of community newspapers warning that proposed trail closures in the WMA will not only be a ban on motorized traffic there, but will set a precedent for other Crown lands.
ATV Manitoba president Chris Fox-Decent said they’re part of this new group which was pulled together to defend public access to public land. “We’re grouping ourselves with all public land users basically,” he said.
The site in question is the Mars Hill Wildlife Management Area, a mix of jackpine forest and meadow north of Beausejour and a popular area for hikers and horseback riders as well as motorized vehicle users such as ATV riders.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Conservation said the province is considering closing some trails to motorized vehicles in the Mars Hill area but designating trails specifically for their use.
“There is no ban of motorized vehicles being proposed for the WMA,” said Dennis Brennan, a provincial wildlife biologist. “What is currently being discussed is a proposal to develop a designated trail system for motorized vehicles within the WMA.”
The “80 per cent closure of trails” being flagged by the Manitoba Public Land Access Group is “not a hard and fast number,” he said.
“There’s still ongoing talks with local interest groups about what percentage of trails would be reduced on a designated trail system,” he said.
The trail closures are proposed to reduce habitat fragmentation and the overall impact trails have had. The province wants to accommodate some established motorized use while recognizing the role of the WMA in maintaining habitat for wildlife, he said.
Conservation is trying to find solutions to an ongoing conflict in the area between motorized vehicle traffic and area residents who complain about trail breaking and trail damage caused by ATVs.
By proposing a designated trail for vehicle traffic, the province is trying to take “a balanced approach” at accommodating everyone’s concerns and needs, Brennan said.
As for concern about Mars Hill setting a precedent, Brennan said a province-wide ATV strategy continues to try to address issues in other parts of the province.
“There is certainly a larger discussion happening across the province about recreational use of off-road vehicles across Crown land,” he said.
Fox-Decent said ATV Manitoba proposed a motorsport park for the Mars Hill area last year, hoping to manage and maintain an authorized site and “provide stewardship to the area.” The idea was rejected.
He said his association is concerned the province will move to close more trails in popular riding areas without first exploring other management options. ATV-Manitoba has proposed staging areas, educational signage on trails and land access permits so that riders could be authorized to maintain trails they use, he said.
What happens at Mars Hill is important because “all of that is teetering on the outcome there,” he said. “Mars Hill is the pilot project for the government.”
The Manitoba Public Lands Access Group plans a rally in support of public land use at the Brokenhead River Community Hall in Beausejour on April 18.
Brennan said Conservation wants to meet with all local interest groups to talk over the proposal for Mars Hill.
“I think we just need to get the message out there and talk with all the groups better.”